Monday, May 05, 2008

Genesis 17:20

Genesis 17:20: “. . . And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”

God’s goodness continues. He heard Abraham’s plea for Ishmael and responds kindly. This is another one of those incredible pieces of scripture found throughout the Bible where God almighty shows His love and kindness towards His children. Ishmael will be blessed. He will have heirs and together they will multiply greatly. This was great news for Abraham and Ishmael. As I read this account, however, I notice something else of even greater interest to me. God said to Abraham, “I have heard you.” No matter how old Abraham was, no matter what he did in disobedience to God, no matter how he laughed at and doubted what God had just told him, the Creator stops to tell him that He has heard him and He’ll act positively on His request. God has not changed. He still does this today with each of us, but as He sees fit as we’ll discover later in verse 21.

[Allow me to digress for a few moments of your reading. You should be aware that at this point in my study I discovered something most interesting. When I checked the commentaries on this entire section, I discovered that the authors are generally of two minds. Some have taken a position similar to mine – Abraham laughed at what God was saying and doubted it. He also was pleading that Ishmael could be seen as the one through whom the Covenant would come about and thus his request of God in verse 18 of Genesis chapter 17. Others equally respected commentators have taken a different view on several points. First, that Abraham’s laughter was one of joy. He laughed at the fact that the God in whom He believed could overcome the physical limitations of both man and nature and in fact give an old man and his wife, a baby child. Secondly, that his plea to God was not that God would somehow forget about the promise of another heir and bless him through Ishmael, but rather that Ishmael also not be forgotten in God’s plan and economy. Thirdly, we note that while some commentators agree with the tendency to believe Isaac’s name was chosen as a constant reminder to Abraham about his doubt, others add the fact that the name, which meant laughter, was also given as a prophetic sign of the fact that Isaac would bring great joy to his parents. Personally, I favor the interpretations I have suggested above for several reasons. The language is clear. There is no reference to Abraham being elated with the news. There is a possibility that those who support that view may be drawing on the phrase “and said in his heart” as found in verse 17. This would be similar to the idea we read about in the New Testament after the angel had told Mary that she was to bear the Messiah and scripture indicates that “she kept these things in her heart.” The evidence is not strong. Furthermore, if that were the case here, the beginning of verse 19 would not include the words, “But God said” and “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son.”

Yet we have these two very different views. We must realize that Scripture is there for all of us to read, study, and reflect on. Sometimes there is no question as to what is being communicated in which all of us will come to a similar viewpoint. Other times, our interpretations may differ. More often still our ‘assumptions’ about what was really meant, or what gave rise to the statement (that is, the assigning of motive) around words we read in Scripture, is indeed human interpretation, be it yours, mine, or a famous commentator’s. One may argue that he/she supports interpretation A over B because he/she knows that commentator A was a learned scholar. Another person may argue for B because they believe commentator B is really filled with the Holy Spirit and a real man/woman of God. We should remember that scholarship does not trump God-inspired interpretation. At the same time, we must also remember that we have no inside track as to who is being definitely inspired by God or truly filled with His Spirit. That then leaves us two options. First to be aware of the various interpretations available for any given passage, from reasonably faith-based sources, and ensuring that such do not contradict other aspects of Scripture on which all agree. Secondly, to search the Scriptures ourselves, in prayer, and to analyze them in search of what God may be saying directly to us about them. It is critical for you, the reader, to keep this in mind as we continue our study together.]

Ishmael, we are told, will become the father of twelve princes and a great nation. Ishmael’s favor will be bestowed on him because of Abraham’s sake. God was saying to Abraham, “I heard you, therefore, your son Ishmael will be blessed.” God used the word “exceedingly” in reference to Ishmael being multiplied in generations to come. At face value the word implies that whatever is being discussed will indeed “exceed” something else. It is possible that God meant Ishmael’s nation would far exceed in number, one day, those of his neighbors, the nation of Israel and perhaps others.

There is no indication as to whether or not the blessing for Ishmael went beyond the promise of very fruitful multiplication and the political spheres of princes and nationhood. For example, there is no mention of any spiritual blessings, although we do know today that faith in Christ has indeed touched the hearts and lives of many of Ishmael’s descendents. Suffice it to say, that Ishmael who was born in sin, and his offspring after him, would indeed have blessings bestowed on them because of Abraham’s faith in
God. We see examples of the same thing today – children that are blessed materially or with great talent, not because of their walk with God, but because of their parents’ relationship with the Almighty. One wonders whether that blessing is perhaps allowed for the sake of the parents’ own joy.

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